Patriotic Money

Inquirer editorial
Romulo Neri may be sustained by a different self-image, but to many Filipinos he is damaged goods. He has lost the moral standing, and thus the credibility, to discharge the functions of high office. Appointing him to head the Social Security System (SSS), therefore, can only be seen as political payback: payback for him, for keeping his silence about President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s role in the anomalies that marked the national broadband network (NBN) deal with China’s ZTE Corp. and in politicization of the SSS, to meet the Arroyo administration’s increasingly self-serving objectives.

When Neri testified before the Senate that Benjamin Abalos, then the chairman of the Commission on Elections, had offered him a P200-million bribe, in exchange for approving ZTE Corp.’s bid for the NBN project, he popularized a new phrase in the country’s ever-growing dictionary of corruption: “Sec, may 200 ka dito” (meaning, Secretary, you have P200 million for yourself in this deal).
More crucially, he also faced a crossroads: to stop at that damning revelation, or to tell all. He decided not to say anything further. To strengthen the grip he had placed on the hand covering his mouth, he even petitioned the Supreme Court to enjoin the Senate from asking him potentially revelatory questions about what the President knew, and when she knew it.

This decision, however, did not prevent Neri from meeting with opposition senators, ostensibly to discuss our own version of the axis of evil, so to speak, but in actuality, according to the testimony of Jun Lozada, the Neri associate who helped arrange the meeting, to explore the possibility of raising “patriotic money” to tide Neri along, in case he decided to burn his bridges with the President.

In that meeting at the Asian Institute of Management, Neri lectured, among other topics, on the evil of regulatory capture, the phenomenon where a regulatory agency is held hostage or is indirectly controlled by the very parties it is mandated to regulate. In truth, Neri’s detailed lecture missed the big picture. What is happening under the Arroyo administration is institutional capture, the phenomenon where various institutions of government and society—the House of Representatives, the police, the local governments, the military, even (if critics are to be believed) the Catholic bishops—have been co-opted or marginalized by an over-assertive executive. Neri’s appointment to the SSS means we must add it to the lengthening list.

But the SSS is a major institution, with sound financial controls and, especially under its outgoing administrator, Corazon de la Paz, a robust track record. Surely it isn’t possible for one man to put all of that at risk?

History, unfortunately, offers proof of vulnerability.

The SSS can be twisted into doing the President’s will, even against the public interest. Read, for instance, the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan’s landmark decision on Joseph Estrada’s plunder trial. The anti-graft court ruled that President Estrada had used his personal relationship with the SSS chief, Carlos Arellano, to force the agency to invest (together with the Government Service Insurance System, or GSIS) almost P2 billion in Belle Corp. stock, allowing Estrada to collect a commission of P189.7 million. (The court also ruefully noted that the investment had lost much of its value over time.)

President Arroyo has used cash-rich agencies or government corporations like the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. and the GSIS to meet political, even partisan, objectives. Regardless of the obvious improvement in its financial position, for example, the GSIS is perceived to be fighting a proxy political war in waging its high-profile campaign against the Lopez-controlled Manila Electric Co.

Neri has proven that he too is vulnerable to presidential pressure. His anguished testimony before the Senate, which literally made him ill, gives us an idea of this weakness, as does his inability to decline a controversial appointment to the Commission on Higher Education (an appointment he was technically not qualified for, because he lacked a Ph.D.).

However much Neri proclaims his qualifications for the new posting, he will continue to lack the main requirement: credibility, which he needs to insulate the SSS from politics. His new appointment will always be seen as the President’s counteroffer of patriotic money. “Sec, may SSS ka dito.”

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